United States Daniel Catán, Florencia en el Amazonas: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor). Transmitted live (directed by Gary Halvorson) and seen at Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 9.12.2023. (JPr)
Production – Mary Zimmerman
Set designer – Riccardo Hernández
Costume designer – Ana Kuzmanić
Lighting designer – T.J. Gerckens
Choreographer – Alex Sanchez
Projection designer – S. Katy Tucker
Florencia Grimaldi – Ailyn Pérez
Rosalba – Gabriella Reyes
Paula – Nancy Fabiola Herrera
Arcadio – Mario Chang
Alvaro – Michael Chioldi
Riolobo – Mattia Olivieri
Captain -Greer Grimsley
Live in HD host – Rolando Villazón
Florencia en el Amazonas is inspired by the magical-realist fiction of Gabriel García Márquez and is the final work of the late Mexican composer Daniel Catán. It was the first opera in Spanish to be commissioned by a major American company (actually three, the operas in Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle). Since its premiere in Houston in 1996 it has been seen widely throughout the U.S., in Germany and Mexico City. Irrepressible Live in HD host Mexican opera star and theatre director Rolando Villazón told the watching cinema audiences that ‘I knew the late composer Daniel Catán quite well, a wonderful person and artist and my fellow Mexican who once said that it was his artistic mission to create a new tradition of opera with a Latin-American perspective. It was also his dream to see Florencia en el Amazonas have its Met premiere so wherever he is he must be dancing out of happiness. This is the first opera sung in Espanol, in Spanish, here in a hundred years.’
The opera’s rather thin plot features just three character-driven vignettes involving people thrown together on the steamboat El Dorado for a journey along the Amazon River in the early 1900s. They are all travelling to Manaus to see the mysterious and reclusive diva Florencia Grimaldi sing at the opera house on her return to her homeland. Apparently, it is not adapted from any one particular García Márquez story though Marcela Fuentes-Berain’s libretto draws heavily on a 1985 novel of his, Love in the Time of Cholera. What we see unfold is simply stories of remembering, finding and rekindling love. Rosalba is a journalist cradling her research for the book she wants to write about Grimaldi and who tries to keep her burgeoning feelings for the captain’s nephew Arcardio – who intends to stop working on the river and become a pilot – in check. Both of them are desperate to pursue the path they have set out on. The married couple, Paula and Alvaro bicker constantly and even consign their wedding rings to the river. For both couples – either in this world or the next as the ending of the opera seems inconclusive – love wins out.
Also on board is the stoic sea captain; then there is Grimaldi, herself, travelling incognito and brooding endlessly over a former lover Cristóbal, a butterfly hunter lost years ago in the jungle and who she hopes may still be alive; and Riolobo, one of the crew onboard who is the intermediary between the real and the mystical world of the river with its flora and fauna. Riolobo begins Act I as the narrator of the opera we will see while he ends the act as the deux ex machina spirit of the Amazon who quells a storm.
Mary Zimmerman’s staging is simple and effective, more Broadway than Metropolitan Opera with set designer Riccardo Hernández bracketing an essentially bare blue stage floor with LED screens mostly showing green vegetation (and the translation). Curved sections of deck railing are moved about, and there is not much more apart from the steering wheel. At the start of the second act after the El Dorado has run aground due to the storm, we see a small version of it shrouded on the stage. At this point I not sure whether anyone on the steamboat has survived and perhaps what we see from now on is them in the afterlife. I know they will never set foot in Manaus due to an outbreak of cholera but are those coffins we see ‘floating’ down the river actually those of the passengers and crew of the El Dorado? Possibly I am overthinking this, regardless [spoiler alert] Florencia Grimaldi’s transformation into a butterfly at the end suggests I might be more right than wrong.
I will let Mary Zimmerman describe some of the rest of what we see: ‘I wanted to put the emphasis a little bit more on the landscape more than on the little boat itself. You have all the flora and the fauna of the Amazon to choose from so we do have various creatures that float on by or fly, but the costumes for the animals are glamorous I would say. We have a school of piranha which are mentioned in the libretto they are sort-of dressed as ladies in sort-of red ballgowns, but they also have fins, and they have large fish on their heads and they have these sort-of pannier of fish … We have a single heron which is played by a very tall dancer, leggy dancer ‘cause I kind of think of a heron that way and a little flighty hummingbird. We want the animals to be mostly realistic but I guess with a bit of whimsy or graphic quality or exaggeration so there are exaggerated takes on waterlilies and butterflies of course. We also have some dancers and some actors that are dressed as waves, as the water itself, and there’s a large storm where people fall off the boat and my idea is that that these dancers actually pick them up and twirl them around and twirl them away into the water.’ According to Rolando Villazón, Mary Zimmerman’s theatrical motto is ‘Never a dull moment’!
Sadly, despite all the potential of the plot (such as it is) and the staging (Lion King-style puppetry notwithstanding) Florencia en el Amazonas is neither full-blown opera nor full-blown musical. Some of the problem is that like the oeuvre of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber it relies too much on instantly recognisable pastiches of Puccini. That is despite conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin replying – when asked by Rolando Villazón ‘Is it Latin-American music?’ – ‘Absolutely I feel like the spice, I feel like Latin-American is spicey, I think the spice is all in the orchestration, spicing the vocal lines.’ Certainly, what actually ‘spices’ up Florencia Grimaldi’s three significant arias is Catán’s homage to the other butterfly, Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San. And it is all rather voice-shredding and relentless and I longed for those rare musical moments which didn’t end in a crescendo.
The talented cast impresses with its commitment to Catán’s cause as well as its vocal stamina. They are headed by Ailyn Pérez (Florencia Grimaldi), who is well supported by Gabriella Reyes (Rosalba), Mario Chang (Arcadio), Nancy Fabiola Herrera (Paula), Michael Chioldi (Alvaro), Greer Grimsley (Captain) and Mattia Olivieri (Riolobo). That his Met Orchestra has bought into Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s apparent belief in Catán’s score was evident from the impressive sounds emanating from the loudspeakers of the Cineworld Basildon. Then again, the musicians are well-versed in the music of Puccini and other verismo composers, so they were not encountering anything revolutionary despite the need for various percussion including marimba, steel pan and djembe (a West African drum).
I am sure many will enjoy Florencia en el Amazonas much more than I did, and I happily accept that. Sadly, the composer is no longer with us because I am certain with a bit of editing there is a compelling one-act opera to be created from the current material. For instance, what is the point of the narrator Riolobo telling us in the first scene about the lives and motivations of the characters we will see and hear who will then repeat much of that at the start of the opera when they introduce themselves.
Featured image: opening scene of Florencia en el Amazonas with Mattia Olivieri (Riolobo) at the centre of the gangway © Ken Howard/Met Opera